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Swing-state Ohio at heart of union rights battle

A battle royal looms in a referendum to repeal a new GOP-backed law limiting collective bargaining rights for state workers. The showdown has implications for the 2012 presidential election.

April 28, 2011|By Paul West, Washington Bureau
  • Protestors against Senate Bill 5 gather at the Ohio Statehouse for a rally.
Protestors against Senate Bill 5 gather at the Ohio Statehouse for a rally. (Jay LaPrete / Associated…)

Reporting from North Canton, Ohio — In this former company town, an aging smokestack marked with "Hoover" in tall white letters stands like a tombstone over the union jobs lost when the vacuum-cleaner factory shut down in 2007.

The decision to shutter an icon of America's industrial heyday, made by the company's new Hong Kong owners, was another step in labor's relentless slide in a state once known as a union stronghold. Now, organized labor is facing an existential test in Ohio, a showdown with implications for next year's presidential election.

Republican Gov. John Kasich recently signed a new law sharply curtailing the collective bargaining rights of public employees. Labor and its allies responded by promoting a ballot measure to repeal it this fall.

"This is a spark for labor and the Democratic Party," said Jim Repace, who once led the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers unit at the Hoover Co.

"They needed a kick in the butt."

In this chapter of the national struggle between unions and a new wave of GOP governors, most of the passion now is with organized labor, battered by an industrial shakeout that slashed its Ohio ranks by more than one-third in recent decades. Those losses would have been more severe were it not for the strength of public employee unions, which now represent a majority of unionized workers.

Statewide polls show that voters would roll back the new law if the election were held today. But even those who think Republicans face an uphill fight expect it to be close. The governor, in an interview, expressed confidence that attitudes will shift once his side's media drive cranks up.

"Do you think that a person working in a day-care center making $9 an hour wants to subsidize a city worker who's paying 9% of their healthcare costs? I don't think so. So it's just a matter of education," Kasich said between bites of a grilled cheese sandwich at his ceremonial Capitol office in Columbus.

"As people find out what this is all about — the balance between the taxpayer and the tax receiver — I think things change. I think people [will] say, 'Oh, I didn't realize that. Why am I paying for a school superintendent that doesn't pay for their own pension when I don't even have one?' I mean, it's not that complicated."

Ohio's state employees pay 10% of their salaries into a retirement fund, but more than 2,000 local governments pick up all or part of workers' pension contributions.

Kasich, like new Republican governors in other states, is using the need to balance the state budget as a rationale for aggressively reversing policies that have benefited public employee unions. Ohio's law, perhaps the most far reaching of such efforts nationally, affects all unionized public workers. That includes police and firefighters, who are more likely to vote Republican and were made exempt by Wisconsin Republicans in a similar fight that has attracted greater media attention and larger crowds.

The battle brewing in Ohio could be more consequential than those in Wisconsin and other states. For one thing, it will be more expensive. Wisconsin's labor fight spilled over into a Supreme Court election this month, generating voter turnout equivalent to a hotly contested presidential primary. Special interests spent $4.5 million on the election; in Ohio, spending in the recall battle could reach $50 million or more.

Moreover, the repeal campaign is playing out in an archetypal swing state whose presidential vote is up for grabs again next year. The outcome could provide an early clue to one of 2012's most intriguing questions: Did the recent midterm election, which dealt President Obama and the Democrats a bruising defeat, signal a return to the conservative Republican dominance in American politics?

Ohio is older and less diverse than most of America. Just one in 50 state residents is Latino. Stagnating population growth has cost it clout, but Ohio still has more electoral votes than any other tossup state except Florida. Presidents are rarely elected — or reelected — without winning here. Obama carried Ohio in 2008, though by considerably less than his national victory margin; 2010 featured a statewide Republican sweep in the midterms. Ohio is "tough, but winnable" for Obama next year, said John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

The drive to repeal SB 5, as the new law is formally known, is already prompting an early start to the 2012 ground game. The Obama campaign, stung by publicity about a White House effort to generate protest crowds in Wisconsin, is keeping a low profile. But the Democratic Party is fully engaged. It is providing technical assistance and support for the repeal effort, recruiting thousands of volunteers and generating voter lists for canvassers.

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